Madam Speaker, what a nice crowd tonight, to say the least.
It is with great pleasure that I rise tonight, at 10 p.m., to speak to Bill C-36 before such a large and prestigious audience. I know that I am not allowed to say it, but I am pleased to acknowledge the presence of the member for Papineau on this Tuesday evening at 10:05 p.m. It is hard for me to believe, but he is actually here. I am pleased to welcome him just like all other members of the House of Commons who are present and listening carefully to what we are saying.
Bill C-36 concerns the Statistics Act, in other words our approach to statistics, and the changes that the Liberal government wishes to make to it. I will quickly point out the circumstances surrounding the Statistics Act, which has been amended in recent years, the changes made to it, what the various political parties have said, and lastly, the fact that the Liberal government has introduced this bill that, in our opinion, includes provisions that are not favourable to Canada’s future.
I would like to point out that in 2010-11, the Conservative government made major changes to statistics, specifically the Canadian census. Our government decided to change the approach. We decided to change, in a fairly major way, the mandatory long form census and replace it with the national household survey. Everyone who witnessed this debate will remember the public outcry. Everyone said that it was the end of the world, that it made no sense, that from then on we would never be able to come up with proper statistics, that it was a direct attack on Canadian science, and that we would be paying for the Conservative government’s mistake for a long time, for decades, if not centuries.
However, what was the outcome? Let the experts speak for themselves. Wayne Smith, then chief statistician, said that the “National Household Survey produced a rich and robust database of information.”
All those who said that what the Conservative government had done made no sense were confused. It was Mr. Smith himself who said in the Globe and Mail on June 24, 2013 that “It’s irresponsible to try and dissuade Canadians from using what is an extraordinary rich and powerful database. To make them nervous about that is I think irresponsible.”
I will have a lot to say about so-called fake news shortly. Some people seem to think fake news is a pretty new thing, but that is not true. As a former journalist, I know what I am talking about when it comes to the spread of false information. I have seen it happen as a journalist and as a politician, especially during the 2015 election campaign, when Canada was a victim of one of the worst smear campaigns against its international reputation. One particular bit of fake news tarnished its reputation for 24 hours. I will have more to say about that later.
Anyway, there were allegations that the Conservative government's infamous survey was a disaster and that people would stop filling out their census forms. The numbers speak for themselves, however: in 2011, 2,657,000 households with a total of exactly 6.7 million people participated voluntarily. That was 9% higher than for the 2006 census, which captured 2.4 million households representing 6.1 million people.
Everyone who said that the Conservative government's changes spelled disaster for science and education and that the impact would be felt for decades was wrong. As it turned out, more people participated, we had more data, and we ended up with a robust corpus of relevant information. What the previous government did was the right thing to do.
Now this government has introduced Bill C-36 to make major changes to the Statistics Act. I want to highlight two elements of Bill C-36, which would establish a Canadian statistics advisory council and no longer require the consent of respondents to transfer their census information to Library and Archives Canada. The second element is the one that concerns us most.
Let us start by talking about the Canadian statistics advisory council. As Bill C-36 proposes, this council will be made up of just a few people who will have sweeping powers and who will not reflect the Canadian reality. That is our concern.
We would like to see at least 20 or so people be included on this advisory council. Such a council should be all about consulting. Yes, that is a lot people, but when it is about listening to people, in order to understand Canadian diversity and ensure that every region of Canada can have its say, of course it takes a lot of people. That is why our party proposed an amendment at committee that this government unfortunately rejected.
Did this government plan to appoint a small number of people to this advisory council for the same reason that it seems to be doing everything else for nearly two years now? Is this another new cushy job for friends of the party, depending on how much they donated to the party?
Need I remind the House that this government is a disgrace to the appointments process? We saw the sorry episode regarding the official languages commissioner, a noble, important, and rigorous position that must be respected and above all, that must have the moral authority to be brutally honest about the government's reality, without ever jeopardizing the credibility of that very strong institution, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
Sadly, the current Liberal government has sullied this approach by giving a consolation prize to a lifelong Liberal who donated to the Liberal Party's coffers and the current Prime Minister's leadership coffers. She wanted a job in the Senate. The Prime Minister's chief advisor said, “Sorry, we no longer give partisan appointments to the Senate, but we have something else.” He could appoint her to a totally neutral and objective role and make her official languages commissioner.
That was just wrong and as a result of the immense pressure from the official opposition and others as well, after three weeks of the government's sorry figure skating display, Madame Meilleur finally realized that she might not be the best Liberal around to fill the role of commissioner of official languages.
Let us come back to Bill C-36. As I was saying earlier, this bill seeks to remove the requirement to gain the consent of respondents to transfer their census information to Library and Archives Canada.
We believe that is a direct attack on what is most precious to our fellow citizens: their freedom of expression, especially in relation to who they are, what they represent, and their personal data.
In its new obsession to want to know everything and disclose everything, the government is suggesting, through Bill C-36, that now people will no longer have the privilege of saying yes or no. They will be required to hand over information. To us that is not at all the way to go about conducting a statistical survey. This needs to be voluntary, especially when it comes to disclosing personal information. We cannot just pretend that this is nothing and that we can just hand over this information like it were no big deal.
This calls for extreme care and vigilance. The bill also repeals imprisonment as a penalty for any offence committed by a respondent. That makes no sense to us. We urge the government to be more careful.
We believe in the importance of statistical data, but people must be able to participate voluntarily, proactively, and openly. It should not be mandatory, and people certainly should not be forced to do it or face sanctions. We can learn from the past here. In 2011, people said the statistical sky would come falling down, but the fact is that more Canadians, 9% more, participated than in the previous census. The evidence tells us that was a good way to go.
That is why we fundamentally disagree with Bill C-36 as written and urge people, especially the government, to be extremely careful
Earlier, I mentioned fake news. I mention this in the context of statistics because, during the debate in 2010-11, lots of people said this would be the end of the world and everything would break down.
Finally, the Chief Statistician of Canada acknowledged that no problems had been reported. On the contrary, response rates increased.
Must I remind the House that Canada's international reputation was terribly tarnished in August and September 2015, in the middle of the election campaign? Members will sadly recall that, when a three-year-old child was found dead on a beach in Syria in the midst of the refugee crisis, some malicious and particularly dishonest people spread the information that the child ought to have been in Canada because his name was on the list of refugees but the government had dragged its feet. In the end, none of it was true. Unfortunately, the child's name was never added to any list. His father did not do it.
Unfortunately, for 24 hours, dishonest and malicious people viciously spread the information that the Government of Canada forgot this boy in Syria. That was completely false. For 24 hours, our country's international name was dragged through the mud. This was one of the worst cases of fake news that I have ever seen. It was unbecoming of journalists and politicians to stoop so low as to use this terrible tragedy in their political games.
Regardless of who was the head of state at that moment, the child unfortunately lost his life and his name was never on any list because his father decided otherwise. That is why we have to be careful. It is important to keep statistics because it is a matter of numbers, and if anyone has trouble with numbers, it is our friends opposite. Must I remind the House that they completely lost control of the public purse over the past 18 months? They got elected by saying that they would stimulate the economy by running small deficits for three years and then magically balancing the budget in 2019. That is another number that is set out in black and white in the Liberals' election platform on which they won a majority.
I hear applause. Do I need to remind those applauding that they have forgotten their promises? What are the facts? Do we have a modest $10-billion deficit? No. Canadians have been saddled with an astounding three times more debt than that. The Liberals were elected on a solemn pledge to run modest deficits, but the fact is, their deficit is three times bigger than they promised. They also said Canada would balance the books in 2019, which is an election year. They said they would right the ship and that Canada's budget would be balanced in 2019.
Just two days ago, who did we hear on Global saying that he had no idea when Canada would balance the books? Who said that on Global on Sunday? The member for Papineau, the current Prime Minister of Canada. How sad.
Honestly, this is the first time in the history of this great land that a Prime Minister has admitted to having no idea whatsoever when the federal budget would be balanced. If I should happen to be misleading the House, please, somebody stand up and give me a date. Canadians want a date. They want to know when the government will balance the budget. Nobody knows. The member for Papineau, an honourable man if ever there was one, got himself elected on a promise to balance the books in 2019. Look at that. I see him nodding. Does he need a reminder about the document that got him elected? The Prime Minister seems to have some doubts about ever having mentioned modest deficits and a balanced budget. I would like to remind him that, on page 73 of the Liberal Party platform, it says, “the federal government will have a modest short-term deficit of less than $10 billion”.
However, he is doing precisely the opposite. We do have a number and date for returning to a balanced budget. It will be in 2055. These numbers did not come from the Conservatives, foreign observers, the Prime Minister, or Liberal MPs. They came the very people who do this kind of thing day in, day out, the senior officials at the Department of Finance.
If there is anyone that knows how the government's finances are doing, it would be officials at the Department of Finance. What does it say in the Department of Finance document released last December? It says that if nothing changes, and it looks as though nothing will change with the current Prime Minister, we will return to a balanced budget in 2055.
There is a nice story that goes with that. The Minister of Finance received this very report from his officials as early as October 5. The Minister of Finance, an honourable man whom I respect, left the report on his desk and did not release it until December 23. While Canadians were preparing their turkey dinner for Christmas, the Minister of Finance released an incriminating document confirming that the government had lost complete control of public spending. They thought it was no big deal and that no one would notice. Thanks to a vigilant opposition and an alert press, the truth came out and we proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that these people have completely lost control over public finances, which is totally unacceptable.
Need I remind the House that when we run up deficits, we are leaving our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to foot the bill, to pay the price for the current government's mismanagement? I keep hearing the Prime Minister and all the cabinet ministers say over and over during question period that the government is investing to create wealth for our children. The problem is that our children will pay the price. The government says it is family friendly. Well, it must feel close enough to the family to send the bill to our children and grandchildren, because it does not know how to manage the country's finances. It is absurd.
I heard the Prime Minister on Global television say with a straight face that he had no idea when we would return to a balanced budget. That is completely irresponsible. I asked the Minister of Finance a completely frank and straightforward question based on his extensive and impressive experience as a seasoned executive. I want to reiterate that I have the utmost respect for the Minister of Finance. He served in his family business admirably and grew the business that his father started himself. Well done. I am very proud to have a man of that calibre as our Minister of Finance. Still, it would be nice if he made some good decisions.
Earlier, during question period, I bluntly asked him, when he was in the business world, in the private sector, whether he would have tolerated an associate laughingly telling him that he did not have any idea when the budget would be balanced and that it was no big deal. When the Minister of Finance was a Bay Street baron, would he have allowed one of his associates to behave in such a way? He would have shown him the door. It is unacceptable.
Unfortunately, it was the Prime Minister who made those disrespectful comments. I say disrespectful because it is disrespectful to our children and grandchildren who, sooner or later, will have to pay for this government's mismanagement. Over the past year, our party held its leadership race. We had serious, rigorous, positive, and constructive debates, and we came out of that leadership race even stronger than before.
Our current Leader of the Opposition, the member for Regina—Qu'Appelle, said that he got into politics to become the leader of this party because he did not want his children to have to pay, like his generation is paying for the Prime Minister's father's mismanagement. What happened in the 1970s when the government completely lost control of public spending is unfortunately happening again. We have seen this before. Canadians deserve better than that.
All that to say that Bill C-36 is a bad bill. This bill to amend the Statistics Act reminds us of the sad fact that this government has no idea how to carefully control public spending.